Are you ready for the work­place revo­lu­tion?

When the cor­po­ratete stakes are so high, it’s not clear how far we will go to win in the of­fice.. Nor how much pres­sure we will facece to pop some pills to get the edgee on our col­leagues

The Australian - The Deal - - Front Page - STORY BY SEAN PAR­NELL

FOR many, the morn­ing cof­fee rit­ual has lit­tle to do with thirst or taste, but the need to start the day at full pace. It is as much a pick-me-up for em­ploy­ees as a pro­duc­tiv­ity tool for the boss.

But what if we could do bet­ter than caf­feine? What if we could har­ness the best that science and medicine has to of­fer the hu­man brain, con­dens­ing all these pow­er­ful in­gre­di­ents into a pill to make you per­form at an even higher level than nor­mal? If these smart drugs worked, and were read­ily avail­able, would you use them? Would your col­leagues and ri­vals also use smart drugs, and would bosses end up ex­pect­ing them to be swal­lowed with that morn­ing cof­fee?

The al­lure of smart drugs has long been the stuff of fan­tasy. It is sen­sa­tion­alised by Hol­ly­wood, most no­tably in the 2011 film Lim­it­less, where Bradley Cooper plays an un­der­per­form­ing au­thor who uses a drug called NZT to achieve ex­tra­or­di­nary suc­cess. In last year’s block­buster Lucy, a drug mule played by Scar­lett Jo­hans­son in­ad­ver­tently con­sumes some­thing called CPH4 that gives her su­per­hu­man pow­ers. But with film fan­tasy comes con­sumer de­mand. The movie drugs might not be avail­able yet, but an in­creas­ing num­ber of peo­ple have found their smart drugs in a va­ri­ety of places.

At one end of the scale, there are strong phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals in­tended for those with learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties, mem­ory prob­lems or sleep is­sues, but il­le­gally di­verted to those want­ing to en­hance their pow­ers of con­cen­tra­tion and mem­ory re­call. At the other end, there are vi­ta­mins, min­er­als and plant ex­tracts (turmeric, any­one?) sold as brain ton­ics – a light touch, heav­ily pro­moted – while in be­tween there are any num­ber of sup­ple­ments and syn­thet­ics, many sold online with­out the reg­u­la­tory con­trols and safe­guards ap­plied to other prod­ucts.

Pro­fes­sor Pankaj Sah, from the Queens­land Brain In­sti­tute and Science of Learn­ing Re­search Cen­tre, be­lieves peo­ple are look­ing to fast track their ed­u­ca­tional de­vel­op­ment or find a short­cut to suc­cess. No one knows how many peo­ple are tak­ing smart drugs be­cause they seem to be do­ing it in se­cret.

“I don’t know the sta­tis­tics in Aus­tralia but we had a Science of Learn­ing meet­ing in Bris­bane and some of the teach­ers there were say­ing they had seen it,” Sah says. “There is a huge ap­petite now for any­thing that will im­prove learn­ing, any­thing that will help you over the line. It’s a mar­ket in which there’s money to be made and a lot of these com­pounds are not out­lawed, and it’s not illegal to use them, and if some­one can make money out of them, they will.”

Drugs have al­ways fea­tured in high-pres­sure en­vi­ron­ments, whether it is stock­bro­kers snort­ing co­caine or truck driv­ers us­ing speed to stay awake. Yet smart drugs ap­peal to the main­stream. Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals ap­pear the most sought af­ter, with healthy peo­ple pop­ping these pills with no in­for­ma­tion on cor­rect dosage or side ef­fects (nor, it seems, any con­cern).

Last year, al­most 600,000 scripts were filled in Aus­tralia for methylphenidate (com­monly known as Ri­talin) which is used to treat at­ten­tion-deficit hy­per­ac­tiv­ity dis­or­der and ru­moured to pro­vide a brain boost for healthy peo­ple. Another ADHD drug, dex­am­phetamine, has a sim­i­lar rep­u­ta­tion and was dis­pensed about 250,000 times last year, while 300,000 scripts were filled for the mem­ory-en­hanc­ing de­men­tia drug Donepezil. These drugs are be­ing dis­pensed in greater num­bers but the level of mis­use is hard to gauge, given the le­git­i­mate use by an age­ing pop­u­la­tion and a greater aware­ness of learn­ing dis­or­ders.

Then there are a whole host of sub­stances found online. Two years ago, one online store ad­vised cus­tomers that Aus­tralian author­i­ties had forced them to stop selling half a dozen sup­posed cog­ni­tive en­hance­ment drugs, mar­keted as nootrop­ics. The level of out­rage that fol­lowed pro­vides some in­di­ca­tion of how de­pen­dent some cus­tomers had be­come. “That’s a to­tal joke. I can’t be­lieve this, like se­ri­ous,” was the first Face­book com­ment, as cus­tomers de­bated how they might cir­cum­vent the laws. Another com­ment: “We must be the most over­reg­u­lated coun­try on earth. What an em­bar­rass­ment.” Another online store in­sures cus­tomers against the risk of author­i­ties seiz­ing their parcels, stat­ing that “Aus­tralia has some weird laws with im­port­ing nootrop­ics or sub­stances”. Iron­i­cally, most seizures in­volve peo­ple im­port­ing prod­ucts in a bid to en­hance their ap­pear­ance or sex drive.

The pres­i­dent of the Royal Aus­tralian and New Zealand Col­lege of Psy­chi­a­trists, Mal Hop­wood, says peo­ple who dab­ble in smart drugs need to know they are at risk of psy­chosis or, in cer­tain cir­cum­stances, death. “We know there is a di­ver­sion process that does oc­cur (for phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals) but peo­ple are also now able to pur­chase al­most any­thing they want online,” he says. “The peo­ple selling these drugs online make of­ten grand claims about their ca­pac­ity to be of ben­e­fit, far in ex­cess of what we know to be sup­ported by ev­i­dence.”

Like many new trends and emerg­ing is­sues, Aus­tralia looks over­seas to see how it has played out, which in the case of smart drugs leads to the United States. Be­tween five and 35 per cent of US univer­sity stu­dents have ex­per­i­mented with smart drugs, depend­ing on how the sur­vey has been framed. The per­cep­tion that a quar­ter of stu­dents rou­tinely use smart drugs in­evitably makes new stu­dents in­clined to fol­low suit. It also raises the prospect of grad­u­ates tak­ing their habits into the work­place.

In Aus­tralia, the ev­i­dence is ei­ther in­com­plete or anec­do­tal. And any at­tempt to quan­tify smart-drug use sparks more com­plex de­bates about safety, med­i­cal, reg­u­la­tory and eth­i­cal is­sues. Dr Jason Mazanov from the Univer­sity of NSW con­ducted a sur­vey a few years ago and found 8.5 per cent of univer­sity stu­dents had used smart drugs at some point. “I work on drugs in sport mostly, and one of the things that con­cerns me is that we sen­sa­tion­alise per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drug use in sport. We ex­cep­tion­alise it and stig­ma­tise it, but is per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drug use be­ing nor­malised in so­ci­ety?”

Another aca­demic, Univer­sity of Syd­ney psy­chol­o­gist Vince Ca­kic, has made sim­i­lar com­par­isons with sport, ques­tion­ing whether smart drugs could ever be reg­u­lated. “The ar­gu­ment that these drugs should be banned for non-med­i­cal use be­cause they con­fer un­fair ad­van­tage is rather like sug­gest­ing pri­vate tu­ition be banned,” he said. “These drugs might even level the play­ing field for those who have been dis­ad­van­taged.”

Med­i­cal ex­perts in­sist the over­rid­ing con­sid­er­a­tion in con­trol­ling the avail­abil­ity of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals and other sub­stances is safety. Monash Univer­sity ethi­cist Pro­fes­sor Michael Sel­gelid knows that to be the case, but won­ders whether the fast pace of so­ci­ety, and pres­sure to com­pete, has left the safety de­bate be­hind. “If there’s even a per­cep­tion that they’re ef­fec­tive, or they re­ally are ef­fec­tive, peo­ple are go­ing to want to use them – even if they’re risky,” Sel­gelid says.

Busi­ness fu­tur­ist Mor­ris Miselowski be­lieves smart drugs are used by two dis­tinct age groups: younger peo­ple who want high-risk, high-re­ward jobs and older peo­ple des­per­ate to keep them. “One is to get in and the other is to stay in,” he says. Yet he main­tains tech­nol­ogy is trans­form­ing work­places more than smart drugs ever could. Search en­gines and digi­ti­sa­tion, for ex­am­ple, are re­duc­ing de­mand on hu­man mem­ory, while robots and au­to­ma­tion free work­ers for other tasks. In the fu­ture, he be­lieves peo­ple will be re­quired for unique tal­ents such as wis­dom – and that won’t come in pill form.

Nonethe­less, peo­ple keep turn­ing to drugs to make their body and brain do more than is pos­si­ble. The Aus­tralian De­fence Force had to change its rules on the use of cer­tain sleep­ing tablets be­cause some pilots fly­ing night mis­sions in the Mid­dle East were be­com­ing ad­dicted. Con­cert pi­anist Si­mon Tedeschi has spo­ken of med­i­ca­tions called beta block­ers be­ing used by con­cert mu­si­cians to calm their nerves. Shift work­ers rou­tinely use stim­u­lants and seda­tives to al­ter their body clocks. None of this in­volves peo­ple us­ing the drugs strictly as in­tended, but it still goes on.

Cer­tain phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals have been nick­named “brain vi­a­gra” and part of the realm of “cos­metic neu­ro­surgery” but it is wrong to as­sume they’re only sought for cog­ni­tive en­hance­ment. The Na­tional Drug Re­search In­sti­tute mon­i­tors ec­stasy users and last year found 77 per cent took il­licit phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals as well, of­ten dex­am­phetamine pre­scribed to some­one else. Re­search as­so­ciate Ma­rina Nel­son says this use of smart drugs ap­pears to be on the rise but no one knows how com­mon it is or what it en­tails.

In the US, some ex­perts be­lieve uni stu­dents use smart drugs sim­ply to main­tain a hec­tic so­cial life while study­ing. In those cir­cum­stances, are the drugs be­ing used to over­come cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment rather than seek cog­ni­tive en­hance­ment?

Queens­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy re­searcher Char­maine Jensen is look­ing at what stu­dents use, and sus­pects smart drugs may be iso­lated to cer­tain fields, such as medicine or law, or con­fined to cer­tain peer groups. Cof­fee is still the most pop­u­lar per­for­mance tool, she says, while an en­cour­ag­ing num­ber of stu­dents recog­nise the need for ex­er­cise and healthy eat­ing. Some of the feed­back she has re­ceived about smart drugs was un­ex­pected. “I had one stu­dent tell me that they started us­ing smart drugs for other things around the house, just to get the house clean, or do what­ever else they needed to get done and out of the way in or­der to study,” Jensen says.

Hop­wood main­tains there has not been enough clin­i­cal re­search to de­ter­mine the safety, and ef­fi­cacy, of smart-drug use among healthy peo­ple. “There’s no sub­sti­tute for a good bal­ance of rest, work and play. If you are re­ly­ing upon ar­ti­fi­cial means to try to main­tain that bal­ance it won’t work for an ex­tended pe­riod,” he says.

Cam­bridge Univer­sity neu­ro­sci­en­tist Pro­fes­sor Bar­bara Sa­hakian has been mon­i­tor­ing the rise of smart drugs for years. Re­cently, she de­clared a press­ing need for more re­search on the im­pact these drugs have on healthy peo­ple so author­i­ties might fi­nally con­trol them.

But herein lies the dilemma: med­i­cal re­search is rightly fo­cused on help­ing the ill or im­paired, so the pos­si­ble im­pact of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals on healthy peo­ple is not a pri­or­ity. With­out clear ev­i­dence of health and safety con­cerns, some mis­use will con­tinue. Any re­search that seems to val­i­date or en­cour­age the use of smart drugs would in­evitably raise reg­u­la­tory and eth­i­cal ques­tions that are much harder to an­swer.

“Some peo­ple might think con­sent­ing, in­formed adults make their own choices whether to use such drugs,” Sel­gelid says. “But with the com­pe­ti­tion we have in our so­ci­ety, all these de­mands, the prob­lem is that the choices might not ac­tu­ally be free even if they’re in­formed. It’s not com­pletely vol­un­tary if peo­ple feel un­der pres­sure to do some­thing. If it starts with smart drugs where does it end?”

“There is a huge ap­petite now for any­thing that will im­prove learn­ing, any­thing that will help you over the line.” Pankaj Sah, Queens­land Brain In­sti­tute

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.